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Dentist Infection Control Dental Office
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I’m a bit of a germophobe.  Learning in my microbiology class at dental school that there are literally millions of bacteria living on me has helped me cope a little bit, but I still like things to be clean.

Autoclave For Sterilizing Dental InstrumentsWhen I was a kid, I used to love watching the dentist open a new packet of dental instruments to use on me.  I always thought that the instruments were brand new and were being used for the first time on me!  I was wrong.  The staff at the dental office puts the dirty instruments in an ultrasonic bath to remove the debris.  Then, they bag the instruments and put them in an autoclave.  Dentists must test their autoclave periodically to ensure that it is working properly to sterilize the instruments.

But how do you really know if your dentist practices good infection control in his or her office?

Ways to Find Out If Your Dental Office Practices Good Infection Control

1 – Make sure that the dentist and assistant use the following infection transmission barriers:

  • Gloves
  • Protective eyewear – not just for them, but for your eyes as well
  • Face mask (If your dentist sneezes, it won’t let anything out!)
  • A disposable gown or a lab coat

You might not think all of those things are necessary, however dentists who neglect these small things may also neglect the important things like completely sanitizing the dental chair and surrounding area before you are seated.

2 – Look for the dentist/assistant/hygienist to open the dental instruments after you arrive in the operatory. If they are already open when you arrive, they are no longer sterile.  Once the instruments are opened, they are exposed to the surrounding environment.  This includes bacteria found in the air and bacteria from people who may be nearby.


3 – Look for hard-to-clean surfaces to be covered with disposable plastic barriers and for surfaces in the operatory to be disinfected after each patient. This includes the handles on the dental light, the suction and air/water hoses, x-ray unit heads, and the computer keyboard and mouse.  In addition, at my dental school, we provide a disposable head rest cover and we put a plastic barrier on the panel that controls the chair’s movements.  We also put a disposable covering on the countertop.

4 – Make sure that all needles and syringes are discarded in a puncture-resistant sharps container. Usually, these are red or white.  They can be mounted on the wall or sitting in the room.  If you don’t see one, you could ask your dentist or hygienist if they have one.  If they do not, they could be endangering many people by putting infected needles into the public garbage system.

Sharps Container - Photo Courtesy of William Rafti

5 – Notice whether they discard all infectious waste in appropriate containers. Dental procedures that are of a surgical nature can produce a significant amount of potentially hazardous waste.  In addition to the sharps container mentioned above, a dental office should also have an infectious waste container to discard items that were used surgically or are otherwise considered potentially infectious.

6 – Find out whether they heat sterilize (also called “using an autoclave” – this is pictured at the top of the article) all reusable instruments and miscellaneous dental items. You may have to ask one of the staff to find out whether this is being done.  You may also want to ask when they last tested their autoclave to ensure it was indeed sterilizing the instruments properly (this is done on a routine basis  in most offices).

7 – Look for dental staff to change gloves and clean their hands before and after seeing each patient. Make sure your dentist is changing gloves when he or she comes in to see you.  Many dentists keep gloves in the operatory so that you will see them put them on when they come in.  Also, even though gloves are worn, it is necessary for the dental professional to wash or sanitize his or her hands after seeing each patient as it is easy to transfer something from the glove to the hand or vice-versa when changing gloves.

8 – Ask them about their infection control policies. Some dental offices will display their infection control protocols.  This might be seen in the form of a sign on the wall or a poster or pamphlet in the waiting room.  If the information is not readily apparent, find out by asking questions.  Your health is important and any dental office with proper infection control policies in place will be happy to share this information with you to put your mind at ease.

A Quick Quiz

Below you’ll find a picture showing a dental procedure.  Can you spot the infection control violations?

Improper Dental Infection Control | Photo Courtesy of Erik Christensen
A Photo Demonstrating Improper Infection Control in Dentistry

Answer(s): The dental assistant is not wearing gloves, all three aren’t wearing protective eye wear, there aren’t disposable plastic sleeves around the suction the assistant is holding, they aren’t wearing lab coats or gowns, and they aren’t wearing face masks.


Many dentists try their hardest to keep their patients from getting sick after they visit them.  There are some who need improvement in this area.  Hopefully the list above will help you gauge how your dentist is doing.

If you are nervous or unsure about the cleanliness of anything, don’t hesitate to ask your dentist.  You deserve a clean office and sterile instruments.  A dental office should be a place to prevent and cure disease, not catch it!

Do you have any questions or comments about dental infection control?  Please leave them in the comments section below.  Thanks for reading!